When a few friends from Louisville started booking music shows at Headliners Music Hall in 2005, they had no idea they’d be pioneers in Louisville’s music scene.
“We never set out to do that,” said Joe Argabrite, a now co-owner of Headliners on Lexington Road. “We set out to work hard and create a viable market, which we have and I think now people are very interested.”
Argabrite—along with Billy Hardison and John Grantz—make up the core of the Headliners crew, first by booking shows there and later as its owners. It took nearly 20 years of work to create a market and a venue that artists seek out, Argabrite said.
There were challenges along the way, but that comes with maintaining a building that dates to the early 1900s and staying afloat in a sea of other venues. Soon, though, the crew at Headliners will be facing perhaps their biggest challenge yet.
A new music venue in downtown Louisville opens in April. With a capacity of about 900, the Mercury Ballroom on Fourth Street is roughly the same size as Headliners. It’s on the same block as the Palace and, like the Palace, Mercury Ballroom is backed by Live Nation Entertainment, a behemoth of a company that operates venues and sells tickets around the world.
Already, the Mercury Ballroom has booked eight acts that have played Headliners in previous years.
Billy Hardison said the emergence of Mercury Ballroom causes a bit of worry in his crew, but he also sees an opportunity.
“Worry goes with the territory,” Hardison said. “We’re optimistic, but we’ve always got a nod to what’s around the corner. It is definitely going to make us work harder at our job. I mean, competition is good.”
For years, Headliners has been the comfortable medium between small bars and clubs such as Zanzabar and larger venues such as The Louisville Palace or the Kentucky Center. (Disclaimer: Grantz also works for Louisville Public Media.) It’s a popular place for fans, but it doesn’t have the multibillion-dollar backing Mercury Ballroom does.
Dan Kemer, Live Nation’s vice president of music in the Midwest, said a little variety and competition is good for fans and artists alike.
“There are so many different genres and so many different artists and fans in the marketplace that I think it is just the next natural development for a thriving music scene for multiple venues,” Kemer said.
Nearly 250,000 Louisville residents have signed up for a Mercury Ballroom/Live Nation newsletter, which Kemer said translates into a lot of fans looking for tickets to live music.
Hardison said he hopes that is the case—because it will be up to the fans to support the two similar venues.
“They think it’s completely possible,” Hardison said. “They are a very large, successful, organized, well-informed company that probably has some analytics that we don’t that says Louisville can support that, and I sure hope they’re right.”
Justin Lewis, a Louisville artist that first performed at Headliners when he was 19-years-old, said it will be difficult even for a company as big as Live Nation to threaten the prominence of Headliners.
“They are just really good at what they do,” Lewis said. “When people come to Louisville and ask about the best venue, Headliners will top the list. Local musicians thrive to play there.”
Lewis said he doesn’t believe Live Nation is trying to oust Headliners—they are just jumping on an opportunity.
“I think they know that Headliners is good,” he said. “I think they just want to put their hands in the pot, which is business.”
On social media, reactions are mixed. Some support Mercury Ballroom, but some Headliner fans have threatened to boycott the new venue.
“I hate hearing people say that,” he said. “I’m not going to not support an artist because I don’t want to support the venue. It’s all about supporting the artist.”
Hardison doesn’t support a boycott, either. He said the new venue should be able to cater to audiences that have, historically, been underserved in Louisville.
“Live Nation can take on bigger pop and hip-hop and metal and (electronic dance music),” he said. “I have a feeling they will keep their calendar as diverse as possible.”
Kemer said that Mercury Ballroom will be a good opportunity to give different genres a place to perform. He said the venue will support local artist development and has scheduled a “Mercury Rising” series highlighting local musicians such as the Tunesmiths and the Debauchees.
Both bands are Headliners regulars.
“We are looking at every genre out there,” Kremer said. “Whatever the fans are looking for, that is what we want to be. We want to be a music hall for every and all genre and every and all fan.”
Ticket prices are not projected to vary much between the two venues. Kemer said prices are dictated by artists, but he said lower ticket prices enable fans to see more shows.
“When fans are seeing more shows it is another opportunity to help build a thriving music scene in a thriving music town,” he said. “Keeping ticket prices low is one of the priorities.”
Even if the competition heats up, it’ll have to stay somewhat cordial. The main core of the Headliners crew also runs Production Simple, a local promotion company that brings in many of the acts to Headliners. Production Simple already has a relationship with Live Nation to book acts at the Palace.
“We love working with Billy and the guys over at Production Simple,” Kemer said. “We do a lot of work together and coexisting and we’re talking about another show in April over at the Palace. We love working with those guys and we want to continue to do that.”
But when asked if that relationship will extend to Headliners, the answer wasn’t as clear. The opening act for Mercury Ballroom will be Okkervil River on April 4. They last came to Louisville in 2005, performing at Uncle Pleasant’s.
And Headliners’ Argabrite was certain Okkervil River’s next show in the city would be at Headliners.
“I have had an ongoing relationship with Okkervil’s agent,” Argabrite said. “We’ve worked together on a lot of other things. It was my understanding that I would be given a shot at the date. They went to Mercury instead. It’s just the difference between history and money.”